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Foreign nationals benefit scientific innovation

Joe Gray testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance hearing testimony
Dr. Joe Gray testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance in Washington D.C. in early June at the invitation of Senator Ron Wyden. Gray addressed the importance of international collaboration in scientific research. (Video screen capture)

The Human Genome Sequencing Project. The National Institutes of Health’s Cancer Genome Atlas project. The National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Systems Biology projects and Cancer Moonshot program. These are examples of large-scale international scientific research programs I have had the opportunity to contribute to throughout my career. These are also programs that have strongly benefited from the work of foreign nationals and from robust international data exchange.

Recently I testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance in Washington D.C., to share my opinion on the importance of international collaboration in scientific research.

Scientists in the United States today face many challenges. These include uncertain funding, burdensome requirements for reporting, increasing workplace regulations and keeping up with the daunting flow of new ideas and data that are being generated worldwide. Should additional requirements be put in place that regulate interactions with foreign nationals, the natural tendency of many scientists will be to avoid the interactions. I believe that this will significantly diminish innovation within the United States.

I have spent my research career of more than 40 years in biomedical research, developing and deploying advanced measurement technologies to elucidate the mechanisms that are important in the development and treatment of cancer and other diseases. During the course of my career, I have published nearly 500 papers, and I am a co-inventor on 80 U.S. patents. Foreign nationals made key contributions to many of these papers and patents.

I began my career at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where I held top-secret security clearance. As a consequence of my employment there, I am well aware of the need to protect information that is of strategic importance to the United States. I am also aware of the constraints that the strict control of information imposes on scientific exchange, innovation and translation to improved patient outcomes. The entry and movement of foreign nationals within the laboratory were strictly controlled as were my trips to meetings in foreign countries. The administrative and financial cost of these monitoring efforts was substantial.

In his book, “Where Good Ideas Come From,” Steven Johnson writes that innovation results from the integration of ideas and facts that arise through planned and unplanned interactions with other individuals. I support that concept. I also support his contention that the level of innovation increases with the number and diversity of those interactions. We run the risk of stifling innovation whenever we constrain interactions.

It has been my experience that the way people approach problems is colored by their past experiences. It is also my experience that individuals educated in other countries bring different ways of thinking. These individuals undergo extensive vetting to ensure a high level of education and potential. Thus, I believe that innovative solutions to the complex problems we are trying to solve throughout the biomedical community today will occur most rapidly through the free and open exchange of information and ideas with individuals with the greatest possible diversity.

The economic strength of the United States depends on innovation and on the speedy implementation and commercialization of innovative ideas. I believe that the controls that are already in place provide a workable balance between protecting data and intellectual property and allowing the free exchange of data and information. Additional efforts to control interactions with foreign nationals will decrease innovation and, in so doing, will diminish the economic power of the U.S. and will have little impact on foreign misappropriation and misuse of information and ideas.

Most innovative ideas and data will eventually become available through the published literature and in published patents and so will be available for misuse. Instead of imposing constraints on interaction, which would be very expensive to implement, I advocate for adding supports to make it easier to protect the intellectual property that is generated with taxpayer dollars. I also recommend supporting the rapid and efficient transfer of information from academia to the private sector as well as between researchers worldwide so that maximum benefit can occur from the massive new technological advances and the big data being generated.

In the end, economic success will come from rapid innovation and development, and aggressive protection of intellectual property using existing legal and political tools. The misappropriation of data and ideas is serious but should be dealt with through already existing legal and political means and not by placing constraints on the free information and idea exchange on which the U.S. competitive advantage depends.

The best and most intelligent scientists in the world come to the U.S. to study and work because of our free and open system. Additional constraints will not effectively deter nefarious activities but will diminish innovation and U.S. economic growth. It is important to not let the transgressions of a few inhibit the successes of many.

Joe Gray is the Gordon Moore Chair of Biomedical Engineering and associate director for Biophysical Oncology in the Knight Cancer Institute at OHSU.

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